Nasdaq taps heavy hitters to shore up battered image

By Published on .

This is the week we remember the staggering collapse of a New York City institution. We mourn the lives destroyed, the dreams crushed. We recall the horror of watching a towering symbol of American economic hegemony up in smoke, and the scarred post-apocalyptic landscape left behind.

We speak, naturally, of the World Trade Center-but we could as easily be talking about something else. We could as easily be describing the Nasdaq.

Well before 9/11, the high-tech highfliers had begun tumbling down, as well. And "The Stock Market for the Next Hundred Years"-as vivid a monument to `90s capitalism as the Twin Towers were to the Old Economy-simply crumbled under its own weight. For investors, it was a financial catastrophe. For the institution: an image debacle.

But image has always been the Nasdaq's strong suit. Its previous campaign cunningly exploited the brand cachet of its more prominent listees. When the National Association of Securities Dealers was still a relatively modest over-the-counter market, such established corporate icons as Federal Express lent plenty of borrowed interest. Absolutely, positively overnight.

In time, the Nasdaq even transcended the street cred of its constituent corporations to become the Studio 54 of the New Economy. But now that the New Economy has been exposed as an illusion, borrowed-interest advertising once again is being asked to perform its magic.

See John Chambers of Cisco: "I would hope that people would think about Cisco in terms of changing the way the world works, lives, plays and learns."

See Michael Dell: "At first my parents were pretty upset with me when I dropped out of college, but after a while, they got over it."

See Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft: "When I first came to Microsoft, my father asked me what software was. My mother asked a more interesting question-why would a person ever need a computer?"

Uh, to track their losses?

In a pair of very uplifting spots from McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C., we also meet bosses Craig Barrett of Intel, Tom Stemberg of Staples and Howard Schultz of Starbucks-six rich white guys intercut speaking inspiringly about corporate vision.

"Visionaries," the tagline eventually concludes. "Listed on Nasdaq."

Once again, Nasdaq cleverly cloaks itself in the mantle of business greatness-even if it conspicuously ignores the many false prophets and felons since delisted from the exchange: WorldCom, Adelphia, PSINet, Etoys, Pets.com. They all had vision out the wazoo. Unfortunately for Nasdaq investors, what they saw was a variety of accounting frauds and hallucinations.

The new tagline also doesn't have quite the zing of "The Stock Market for the Next 100 Years"- which was bold, inspiring and accurate, give or take 96 years. It's worth observing that the current crop of corporate role models-Intel, et al-this year have cumulatively lost $354 billion in value. Which is the gross domestic product of Russia.

Not Turkmenistan. Russia.

But we veer off the point. Nasdaq didn't cause the bubble market for tech stocks. It didn't throw investors to the lions; it was merely the coliseum. And now that share values have plummeted to about where they belong, it will still be the meeting place of entrepreneurship and capital. If you can choke back the snorts of angry derision as you watch these spots, that message does eke through.

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